Albert Barnes and Paul Guillaume
By Robert Zeller
June 03, 2014
|Albert Barnes by Giorgio de Chirico|
My colleague Richard Carreño [at BroadStreetReview.com] compares the Barnes Foundation’s art collection, of which some 800 pieces were hung on permanent display in Merion, to that of Paul Guillaume in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. There are some important differences, however.
Giorgio de Chirico's portrait of Barnes.
Guillaume’s collection, as Richard points out, consists of 145 works. Barnes owned some 350 works by Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse, and Picasso alone. In addition to the works in the galleries, he had ten times as many in other repositories, notably his estate at Ker-Feal. These included works by Corot, Courbet, Millet, and De Chirico, the latter a portrait of Barnes himself. He wasn’t just hiding them; they simply didn’t fit in with the conception he had for the galleries. In the case of De Chirico, Barnes may simply not have wished to call undue attention to himself in what was designed as a pedagogical setting. Guillaume’s portrait of himself by Modigliani does hang in l’Orangerie. De gustibus.
Richard repeats the tedious canards about Barnes’s offensive character. Personal attacks on Barnes have always been a means of denigrating his collection, intentionally or not. Barnes did have enemies, it’s true. They were the Philadelphia philistines who denounced his collection when he first exhibited it in 1923 in terms almost identical to those later used by Hitler’s minions in the Degenerate Art exhibit of masterworks confiscated by the Nazis fourteen years later. His Matisses and Picassos and Soutines were, the local critics opined, the products of diseased if not insane minds. The Philadelphia “cultural” community has been doing itself proud about the Barnes ever since, with its licensed heist of the collection only the latest chapter in the sordid tale. Enemies? Yeah, Barnes had ‘em. Among snobs, fools, and poltroons, he had plenty to choose from.
Richard says that Guillaume shaped Barnes’s taste, but it was William Glackens who actually tutored him, and he did not long rely on anyone’s advice. He also chastises Barnes for his “lazy, salon-style” approach to displaying his collection. It shouldn’t be necessary at this point to remind anyone that Barnes spent thirty years creating the arrangement of his galleries in the form of wall ensembles designed to illustrate the intricate formal connections between the works he hung. One can agree or disagree with Barnes’s choices and the aesthetic principles behind them; to me, rightly perceived, they enhance the value and experience of one of the greatest private art collections ever assembled. The one thing those choices can’t be called, though, is “lazy.”
Paul Guillaume was a man of taste and refinement, and the Musée de l’Orangerie (of which his collection forms only a part) is indeed a small jewel. It is no disservice to him to say that his collection doesn’t hold a candle to that of Barnes, not simply in scope but in terms of broader cultural significance. Barnes meant his collection to serve not connoisseurs or a casual public, but as an instrument of democratic empowerment. His vision of fine art as a resource to this end, rather than as the ornament of a moneyed elite, was an expression of the Jeffersonian tradition at its finest. That elite has now had its revenge in the theft of the collection. The edifice in which its creator’s vision is daily mocked is not a museum, even if paying customers are invited to gawk at it. It’s a lockup.